A New Skill Each Month

In Blog by Robert PoolLeave a Comment

Toward the end of Peak, Anders and I suggested that a better name for humans than Homo sapiens, “knowing man,” would be Homo exercens, or “practicing man,” because we are the only species that can deliberately develop new abilities through practice. And we offered a vision of the future in which more and more people would be consciously taking control of their lives and cultivating the abilities they needed or desired to live as they wished.

Now, little more than a year after the publication of our book, I believe I have gotten a glimpse of that future. Inspired in part by reading our book, a young man in San Francisco, California, has spent the past nine months developing one ability after another in an ambitious project he calls “Month to Master.” It is, more than anything else, a demonstration of the ability that each of us has to mold ourselves into whatever forms we wish — as long as we are willing to put the necessary time and thought and effort into the task.

Max Deutsch

The young man’s name is Max Deutsch. A recent college graduate, he is a product manager at Intuit, and last fall he set out to, as he put it, complete twelve ridiculously hard challenges in twelve months. The challenges were:

  • Memorize the order of a deck of cards in less than two minutes.
  • Draw a realistic self-portrait.
  • Solve a Rubik’s cube in under 20 seconds.
  • Land a standing back flip.
  • Play a five-minute improvisational blues guitar solo.
  • Hold a thirty-minute conversation in Hebrew on the future of tech.
  • Build a self-driving car.
  • Develop perfect pitch—identify twenty random musical notes in a row.
  • Finish a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in one sitting.
  • Complete one continuous set of forty pull-ups.
  • Continuously freestyle rap for four minutes.
  • Defeat world champion Magnus Carlsen at a game of chess.

 

When I first looked at the list of challenges, I thought it was ridiculous — there was no way that anyone could master these various activities each within a month’s time. It seemed even more ridiculous when I found out that, because of all the other activities in his life — his job, commuting, fixing meals, going to the gym, having a social life, sleeping — Max had generally less than an hour per day to devote to practice on each task. But after speaking with him, I had a better understanding of exactly what he was doing and the implications it holds for the rest of us.

Max told me that he had this type of project in his mind for a long time. Throughout college, he said, he had imagined that at some point in the future, when he had a successful business or perhaps when he was retired, he would have the time to do it — to try to become proficient on a long list of things he was interested in or challenged by.

I think most of us can identify with this. Who doesn’t have a list of things you’d like to be good at. The difference is that Max doesn’t just daydream about such things. He sets out to do them.

For much of his life, he told me, Max was learning different things. Music. Film making and visual effects. Languages. Rubik’s cube. And so on. He would generally get reasonably good at something, but never really reach the level of expert in anything. But what he did do, he said, was become very good at learning. All of that practice in different areas helped him develop a large capacity for learning — he learned discipline and developed an eye for effective learning methods.

“I have a pretty good feeling of when I’m learning something rather than going through the motions,” he told me. “My perspective is that I developed the capacity to learn more quickly because I wasn’t focused on one particular activity. The cross training really helps. Learning is pattern recognition, so cross training helps in pattern recognition.”

After he had graduated from college and been working for a about a year, he started flirting with the idea of starting his own business so that he’d have time to try some of the projects he had been thinking about. But then, he said, he thought that perhaps he should just try to integrate some of those projects into his life as it was. “Aspirations often feel bigger when they’re ambiguous,” he said, so he decided to develop some concrete goals and see if they could be achieved in the relatively small amount of free time that he had. That ultimately turned into his Month to Master project, which he started in November 2016. When I spoke with him he had finished eight of his monthly projects — up through developing perfect pitch — and had achieved every goal.

Max kept daily records of his practice and his progress, and I urge anyone reading this to visit his site and see exactly what he did and how he did (there is a link at the bottom of this article), but I will not be repeating what he describes there. Instead, I’d like to offer a few observations about what Max has done and what the rest of  us can learn from him.

The portrait challenge, before and after

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Month to Master project is the nature of the challenges that Max settled on. Almost all of them can be classified as making improvements in an area he already had some skill in rather than developing a skill from scratch. For example, he had been solving Rubik’s cube since middle school, and at the beginning of the month devoted to his Rubik’s cube challenge he timed himself and found he could solve it at an average speed of less than fifty seconds. So Max was already pretty good at solving Rubik’s cube, but he was attempting to go from fifty seconds to just twenty seconds — a major leap in skill that would take him from pretty good to excellent.

Something similar was true for his guitar challenge. Max could already play the guitar reasonably well, but playing blues guitar was new to him, as was putting together an improvisational solo. He could already read and write Hebrew, but he had never gotten comfortable speaking it or carrying on a conversation. He had already taught himself how to memorize a deck of cards, but it took him about twenty minutes; now he wanted to get that down to two minutes — a huge improvement. And so on. Most of his challenges were in areas he was already interested in and had already developed some skill in, but now he would be trying to jump up several levels in ability.

At first that may make the challenge seem less impressive. No, he wasn’t going to learn Hebrew from scratch and be able to carry on a conversation with just a month of training. He wasn’t going to go from guitar zero to guitar hero in thirty days.

But what I actually find more impressive about this is that Max recognized the limits of learning and set himself challenges that were difficult but feasible. I don’t know if anyone can learn a language from scratch well enough in a month to be able to carry on a reasonable thirty-minute conversation, but I’m quite sure that no one could do it in that period of time while spending less than an hour a day on practice. Max was challenging himself severely but not giving himself unattainable goals.

Which is why I think Max’s accomplishments should be an inspiration to all of us. Relatively few people decide as adults that they want to develop a skill from scratch. It happens, but it’s much more common that someone already has reached a certain skill level — in a job, in a sport, in a pastime — and wants to get better. And that can be difficult to do. It is natural to reach a plateau beyond which further progress is hard to accomplish, so most of us find ourselves stuck on those plateaus, wishing we were better but doing little about it. Or perhaps believing that we have reached some natural limit beyond which we just cannot go.

Max’s example shows us how wrong we are. In each case he challenged himself to become significantly better at some skill that he found interesting or valuable, and in each case (so far) he succeeded. There is no reason that the rest of us cannot follow suit.

And there is something else equally important that can be learned from how Max went about developing these various abilities — the best strategy for improving when you want to pump up your skill level in a particular area. He used a classic deliberate practice approach, and it worked exceptionally well.

To begin with, Max had a clearly defined goal for each month: memorize a deck of cards in under two minutes, solve a Rubik’s cube in under twenty seconds, do a back flip, converse in Hebrew about a tech topic for thirty minutes, and so on. This specificity is crucial. It is very difficult to improve at anything if your goal is only to “get better.” Without a specific goal, you have no concrete target to aim at and no good way to determine what sorts of practice are working and what sorts aren’t.

Second, once he had settled on his goal, Max formed a specific plan for how to reach that goal. It’s worth reading his descriptions of each month’s project to see what sorts of plans he laid out to reach the various goals. For example, to develop perfect pitch he came up with a three-part plan: first, develop relative pitch, or the ability to recognize a note by comparing it against a known reference note; second, internalize a reference note so that he doesn’t have to rely on an externally supplied reference note; and third, practice to reduce the amount of time needed to recognize a note by recalling the reference note and then using his relative pitch to identify the target note.

Finally, Max was constantly checking his progress against where he thought he needed to be and seeing how his improvement plan was working out. If he saw that something wasn’t effective, he would immediately come up with a new plan using what he had learned up to that point.

This is a wonderful blueprint for anyone who wishes to embark upon a program of self-improvement, and I would recommend to any such people that they visit Max’s website and read through the descriptions of the various months’ efforts to get a variety of ideas about how to proceed.

Max commented to me that the hardest part of making improvements like his probably isn’t the planning or the practice but simply having the confidence to get started. Many people will doubt they can make such improvements or will believe that even if it’s possible, it would take far too much time and effort. But his history of learning different skills taught him to believe that pretty much anything is achievable with practice. “When I see someone who can do something I can’t,” he said, “my interpretation is, ‘Oh, they must have spent some time learning that thing.’” Thus if he sees someone with a particular skill, he believes that, with the right sort of training and effort, he himself could reach that same level.

Like I said: Homo exercens.

 

For details on Max’s challenges and how he went about completing them, go to blog.monthtomaster.com.

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